Behind the Tragic Death of Cliff Burton

Few rock ‘n’ roll deaths are more tragic than Cliff Burton’s. The Metallica bassist was just 24 years old when he died from a freak tour bus accident. Burton was an integral part of the metal outfit from 1982 until 1986. His adept playing can be heard on Kill ‘Em All, Ride the Lightning, and Master of Puppets.

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Burton died on September 27, 1986. The band was on a tour bus in Sweden when the driver lost control, flew down an embankment, and caused Burton to fly out the window. The bus eventually rolled on top of him.

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According to the band, they were filled with anger immediately following Burton’s death. “My throat was going bad, so I was asleep in the back lounge,” James Hetfield once explained. “The tour buses you see here are all metal-sided, but it was all windows on the side, and that was the main cause of the death.

“It hit so-called black ice, skidded out and bounced once, and that’s when he went through the window, and the bus went right on him,” he continued. “It was pretty quick and I know he didn’t know what hit him.”

Hetfield immediately got out of the bus to investigate the accident. “‘Why did this happen? Where’s the driver? Let me smell your breath.'” Hetfield continued. “I walked for miles looking for this black ice in my underwear, when it’s 20 below. There were screams from the crew who were still trapped in there, screaming in pain–broken collar bones, toes, all that.”

Soon after, the band’s manager Peter Mensch urged the group to keep going.

“Peter came out and said, ‘Get your therapy out through your music–jump right back on the horse and ride on,'” Hetfield added. “We couldn’t believe this guy was telling us this. ‘What do you mean, man? This is our buddy. Screw you.’ It took us a few days to grasp the concept of that kind of strength. Cliff’s wishes were, ‘Battle on, friends.'”

After Burton’s death, Metallica brought on Jason Newsted as a replacement bassist. They’ve had a number of personnel changes in that department. Currently, Robert Trujillo is on bass duties.

Photo by Fin Costello/Redferns

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